Mike Wayne

Mike Wayne

Mike Wayne is a Professor in Screen Media at Brunel University.

Sorry We Missed You: how capitalism is destroying working-class families
Friday, 11 October 2019 16:54

Sorry We Missed You: how capitalism is destroying working-class families

Published in Films

Sorry We Missed You is director Ken Loach’s follow-up to his excoriating I, Daniel Blake which exposed how the welfare system has been turned into an apparatus of punishment and cruel indignity for those without work. It took a film to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of the Department of Work and Pensions, because generally the mainstream news media are more interested in the fame and fortune of elite individuals.

Some topics stir outrage and existential angst such as our future relationship to the EU, but how this country treats people who have no work or who are too sick to work barely registers in the mainstream media. This is important because whose stories get told help shape our cultural and institutional empathy maps.

Sorry We Missed You grew organically out of the world I, Daniel Blake brings so harrowingly to conscious appreciation. If the latter is about the world of welfare, the former is about the world of work. ‘When we were going to the foodbanks for our research’ says Loach, ‘many of the people that were coming in were working on part time, zero-hours contracts. This is a new type of exploitation. The so-called gig economy…..and gradually the idea emerged that maybe there was another film that might be worth making.’

Sorry We Missed You certainly was worth making. The title of the film echoes Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry To Bother You, set in the telemarketing job sector. That was a surreal comedy and satire, very different in tone and style from Loach’s approach. Sorry We Missed You refers to the card left by parcel delivery services, a whole de-regulated market of casualised labour opened up after the Post Office’s 350 year monopoly was ended in 2006 (thanks, New Labour). But the title also refers more obliquely to the fact that the two main characters, Ricky and Abby, hardly see either each other or their own kids, as they toil away in the underpaid, overworked labour market that is the 21st century version of Victorian Britain.

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Like I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is set in Newcastle where we find Ricky (Kris Hitchen) – a construction worker originally from Manchester – being inducted into the entrepreneurial language and practices of the delivery driver sector, where large corporations like Amazon sub-contract work out to companies in a competitive race to the bottom. Ricky’s boss Maloney chats baloney – the language of choice, be your own boss, be a ‘warrior’ on the road, all the clichés of market discourse that pollute our contemporary language with nonsensical euphemisms and individualistic illusions and self-delusions. Immediately the economic pressures lock and load. Ricky can either rent a van from the company, for £65 a day and get fleeced that way, or buy a new van costing £400 a month plus a £1000 deposit. That means selling Abby’s car, leaving her to rely on public transport to do her home care visits for elderly peoplek.

In Sorry We Missed You, time has become more of a commodity than ever before. Abby (Debbie Honeywood) cannot spend the time she needs to provide the care her ‘clients’ need, while Ricky is tracked and surveilled to make sure he hits every delivery time. Meanwhile time with the kids is in scarce supply, and mediated through leaving messages on their mobiles.

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The film is a study in how the economic pressures of capitalism gnaw away at the security and naturally affectionate bonds of the family. We see brief moments when the family has the opportunity to be together and enjoy each other’s company – but the strains are stronger than the ties. It has always amazed me that the Left allows the Tories to claim so easily that they are the Party of The Family. The reality is that they are the party that destroys real, concrete families.

Sorry We Missed You shows that when you are on the edge of things, it does not take much to push you over. In a society where supportive safety nets and social services have been stripped away, it becomes the norm for millions of people to live a life of JAMS – what Theresa May described as the ‘just about managing’ who in reality are clinging to the cliff face, with one hand.

When their son Seb (Rhys Stone) gets into trouble for fighting at school, Ricky cannot make the meeting because of work and Seb is duly suspended. A graffiti artist with a crew, Seb cannot afford the spray paints and gets arrested for shoplifting. A wedge between father and son opens up. Seb is a typical surly teenager, and does not buy Ricky’s belief that if you work hard enough there is a decent job and life available for you.

In other Ken Loach films with this sort of subject matter, and de-politicised characters living ordinary and non-rebellious lives, there is sometimes a secondary character who brings a political perspective and analysis to the main protagonist – and the audience. That is not the case with this film. Seb perhaps latently represents some revolt against the authorities as a graffiti artist, and Abby late in the film tells Maloney some home truths, but Ricky can see no way out of the status quo. The film ends with him driving, but metaphorically speaking, with nowhere to go except continuing on the downward spiral he’s been on throughout the film.

One of the problems with social realism is whether in showing, even in a nuanced way, the awful situation of precarity and social inequality, it engenders a sense of hopelessness and pessimism, and reproduces a deeply sedimented feeling that this is just the way things are. However, we can also credit audiences with the ability to make connections between the story they see on screen and the political context from which it emerges. As with I, Daniel Blake, this film will be widely seen outside the commercial theatre network, and will be screened by various parts of the labour movement. Many of these screenings will involve debates afterwards and that is where the connection between the singular story of Ricky, Abby and their kids and the broader social and political story can and will be made.

The Guardian recently had the wheeze of showing Sorry We Missed You to a range of right-wingers, to see what they thought of it. The MP Anna Soubry was among them. No doubt fortifying herself beforehand with a stiff drink at the House of Commons subsidised bar, Soubry declared afterwards that the film ‘didn’t have the bite and passion that I expected.’ Of course, one would not expect a policymaker who has been responsible for constructing the very economy the film exposes, to think much else.

Fortunately, an empathy bypass is not mandated for everyone else. Sorry We Missed You does precisely what it should be doing – putting the real stories of people’s lives up on the screen in a dramatic form that engages vividly and that traces through the consequences of the social forces impinging on them.

The media who should be doing this have instead been investing in neoliberal reality television programmes. Channel Four did not co-fund I, Daniel Blake because they thought they had ticked the box with Benefits Street! This film, as with all of Loach’s films, charts an alternative reality and an alternative history. We really will be sorry and miss Ken Loach if he decides this is indeed his last film.

Sorry We Missed You is released in cinemas on November 1st 2019. Like I, Daniel Blake, It will also be made available for hire to show at community centres, clubs etc.

Peterloo
Friday, 02 November 2018 21:25

Peterloo

Published in Films

Mike Wayne reviews Mike Leigh's new film, a complex, powerful reconstruction of a key historical moment in the ongoing class struggle of the British working class.

Most of Mike Leigh’s films have been small scale, intimate and personal stories rather than the explicitly political territory Ken Loach is well known for. And yet with Peterloo, Leigh has made what is arguably his most accomplished and important work and possibly one of the most significant works of historical film drama on British history.

Admittedly the subject matter instantly lends the work the potential for significance, just because this is an example of a story from history which has not received the attention it deserves, in the popular culture or in our education system. Here was an episode when the British state responded with violence towards the working class, who were struggling to establish something like the substantive and meaningful democracy which the elites today pretend was there all along. It was not of course and neither was it graciously handed down by benevolent elites. They were forced to concede it, under pressure, but they did so having already demonstrated they if they were pushed too far and too fast, they would not hesitate to respond with violence.

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In the early years of the nineteenth century the British ruling class were concerned to produce their own ‘hostile environment’ towards the demands for democratic representation that were coming from the labouring classes, especially inspired by the French revolution of 1789. The film begins on the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) where we meet Joseph, a bugler, stumbling around half-dazed, surrounded by cannon fire. Joseph will still be wearing his distinctive red soldier’s coat on a very different battlefield in St Peter’s Field, Manchester (1819) at the film’s climactic scene. This visual linking via Joseph of the two battlefields, is the film’s temporal sleight of hand, as it feels that only a matter of months had passed rather than four years. It is a brilliant compression and one example of the way Leigh eschews naturalism for a more pointed construction of historical and social truth. And here is the true measure of Peterloo’s significance and achievement. Because while at the level of historical content any film that recovers a repressed history is welcome, this film, so richly underpinned by historical research, has marshalled its material into a formal architecture that does justice to the subject matter.

One of the basic dilemmas that confronted Leigh in telling this story was that it is unintelligible unless it is understood as a collective story and a story of different collectives, or classes converging with tragic consequences at a point in time and space. Yet our storytelling conventions and habits are largely built around individual heroes whose goals and actions push things along. As a result our stories do not usually ring true as historical events. Leigh’s solution is to strike a balance between a focus on one family who take us into the film initially and who reappear consistently throughout, and a much wider ensemble of individuals and groups, many based on the real historical figures involved in the period, who collectively develop the political action. The family is Joseph’s, and he returns to it, traumatised by what he has seen. His mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) is politically aware while his father Joshua works in the local mills. The family’s difficulties in surviving exemplify how hard life is and provide the personal evidence of what is at stake. But it is the confidence the film has to spread its dramaturgy much wider than this family unit, which is key in developing the social and historical understanding of what is happening and why.

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An early sequence convinced me that I was already watching a breakthrough film, when we are introduced to a number of the local magistrates in a series of vignettes. Here we see them meet out their brutal penalties (flogging, transportation and hanging) for a series of petty crimes committed by the impoverished. The fear and loathing of the local bourgeoisie of the working class is moderated slightly by the national government and the aristocracy there, and in the army. They are that much more secure in their rule and confident in their position to urge caution, although when a potato is hurled at the Prince Regent as he waves to the crowd, they are quick enough to suspend habeas corpus. So the one essential ingredient for the compelling realism of this film, that all the key classes are present and correct, is fulfilled. But there are fine individual portraits within these ruling class social types, even when the range of opinions they express falls within the narrow compass of their prejudices and fears. It is the working-class characters, and to a lesser extent their liberal middle-class reform allies, who represent a range of opinion and perspectives on the issues of the day.

This is a film that is very much about the communication of ideas, whether in the written form (letters, the press) or above all through oral speech. There are a lot of speeches in this film, the content of which has mostly been culled from what the real people these characters are based on did say, according to the historical records. But this does not make the film dull or like a series of lectures. This is because the speeches are themselves intrinsically interesting and powerful and in the case of the working-class characters especially, a treat to hear the eloquence, passion and politics with which they cognise their situation. But the film is careful to always have some little drama playing around the speeches to give them a wider layer of narrative interest. It may be that police spies are watching, or that there are disagreements between speakers or that there is some lively interaction between audience and speakers. But there is also the ever-present potential and actual consequences of communication and speech as well.

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This is a film about the dangers of rhetorical overload. The industrial bourgeoisie ramp up pressure for a violent reaction to the working class demands for political reform by their hysterical reports of what the workers are up to. The young working-class radicals are tempted by agent-provocateurs to talk of arming the workers, thereby overstepping the mark and allowing the government to arrest them. Or there are the rhetorical flourishes of the middle-class leaders of a women’s reform group whose words go over the heads of the working-class members of the audience. And when they speak up and talk of their experience during a recent strike, the middle-class leaders quickly move on.

This last scene points to the internal class tensions between the working class and the liberal reformers. This is central to the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Samuel Bamford (a great enthusiastic performance by Neil Bell) a working class radical and the middle class Wiltshire landowner Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear, a superb piece of classed casting). It is Bamford who is instrumental in the film in getting Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd in St Peter’s Field after he impresses him with a speech in London. But they fall out when Bamford suggests that it would be wise to have some small number of men armed with cudgels and swords on the day in case the forces of ‘law and order’ are unleashed on them. Hunt, who does not know the situation in the North as well as he does in London, rejects the idea and subsequently has Bamford banished from the platform on the day as the vast crowd assemble. How resonant that is now, when metaphorically the middle class dominate the public media platforms and the working-class representatives and organic intellectuals are nowhere to be seen.

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It is a touch of genius that in a film full of speeches, we barely hear any of Henry Hunt’s on the crucial day. This is because it is no longer that relevant. Of far more importance is the way the local bourgeoisie prepare to set the Yeomanry and cavalry on the crowd. Bamford’s prescience as to the possibility of violence and the need for self-defence raises a question which is all too rare in British political discourse, namely, how to respond to the violence of the British state. There are no easy answers to this question as the history of the North of Ireland shows. Yet it is a question rarely even broached, such is the invisibility of the violence of the British state within mainstream discourse.

Leigh incidentally has said that he regrets not having Irish Mancunians play a bigger role in the film, and while it is a shame both for the historical record and the added layer of contemporary resonance it would have lent the film, we must also recognise the difficult choices inevitably involved in bringing this story to the big screen. The final climactic scene is incredibly shocking even in the absence of the kind of bloody gore we expect from contemporary films. It is shocking because of the evident and appalling injustice meted out to the crowd by a ruling class for whom the workers are deeply inferior. The descendants of that ruling class are all around us and in their basic attitudes towards the working class, they have barely made any progress since the nineteenth century. Leigh’s complex, powerful reconstruction of a moment in the ongoing class war, needs to be seen and debated widely.